Browsing Category


Aialik Glacier, Alaska, Anchorage, bald eagle, glacial calving, Holland America, humpback whales, Kenai Fjords National Park, Kenai Fjords Tours, orcas, puffins, Seward, Seward Highway, steller sea lions, US National Parks, Zaandam

Day 4: Anchorage –> Seward: Touring Kenai Fjords National Park

FullSizeRender (21)

Scenes from the drive along Seward Highway.

We’re picked up early from the Anchorage Westmark to transfer to Seward. We don’t need to be on the boat until 8pm so with the extra time in Seward, we’ve booked an excursion with Kenai Fjords Tours. The tour is sold as a glacial tour, but they’ve raised my hopes with talk of whale sightings too.

FullSizeRender (22)

Seward Highway Rest Area Views.

It’s a brisk 34 degrees at 7:30, but the forecast is promising sunshine for most of the day and highs in the mid-50s. With coffee in hand, we leave Anchorage by way of Seward Highway. Our driver, Carl, explains that the 125-mile journey that covers Seward Highway is considered one of the prettiest drives in the US. It’s actually only second to the East Coast’s Blue Ridge Parkway.

Soon we’re traveling south, parallel to Turnagain Arm, named for the number of times the initial pioneers who discovered this area had to turn around (or that was one of Carl’s many jokes?) Carl tells us to keep an eye out for Beluga whales, and I immediately make a bee-line for a seat on the right side of the bus to be next to the water. The sun is slow to rise and a low hanging cloud sits just above the lake surface, hiding our view of the glacier in the distance. The water is as still as a pond, and I want to stop the bus, jump off and spend the morning in a kayak, watching this environment wake up.

I’m asking myself how this is the second prettiest North American drive, Shouldn’t it be the first? I’ve never been so awed by mother nature in so many ways. I keep uttering the word, “Stunning!” And in my head I’m thinking, “This is the place I will come back to.” As we round a bend with mountains on our left, Turnagain is now behind us and we enter Dead Forest, a place where now, only a few trees exist. After the 9.2 earthquake in 1964, a tsunami destroyed the land, causing it to take on the consistency of a milkshake. Buildings and homes collapsed and now, only a few trees stand.

FullSizeRender (47)

Dead Forest.

We pass through the Chulgach Forest with places you stretch to call a town, like Portage and Moose Pass, where fishing lodges, rental cabins, and RV lots dot the road. Luckily our driver needs a restroom break, so he pulls over and gives us a 10 minute photo opp near a valley- I’m thankful to get a still shot.


A sea otter having lunch in Seward Harbor.

Not too much longer and we can see Seward harbor, the sailboats, fishing vessels, catamarans and the Zandaam cruise ship, which we will be boarding later. We step off the bus and onto a boat where we will spend the next five hours exploring the Kenai Fjords National Preserve. From the boat, a sea otter is floating on its back, gnawing on the remains of a fish carcass.

We head out to sea with Captain Tim and his crew. To the left are the Kenai Mountains, the tops dotted with glaciers that slope down the sides. We cruise for about 20 minutes and turn a corner to see a long glacier sitting off to the right. Immediately, the temperature drops after being exposed to the glacial wind. Off in the distance, Alaskans are playing on jet skis and kayaks. Even a few surfers are out, milking the last of the mild temperatures before winter.


Kenai Fjords glaciers.

FullSizeRender (37)

Kenai Fjords glaciers.

FullSizeRender (43)

A Bald Eagle watches as our boat cruises by.

FullSizeRender (45)

A Steller Sea Lion about to go for a swim.

Captain Tim points out a black bear on the beach, but as soon as we’ve seen it, he hightails it to the forest behind the beach. Off to our right are Tufted Puffins amongst a flock of seagulls. We cruise further, keeping our eyes peeled for whales tails, as we make our way to the glaciers.

At our next turn, we’re afforded views of steller sea lions, perched high above the sea water on craggy rocks, bathing themselves in the sun. Directly across from the sea lions, a bald eagle sits, almost as if watching the world go by.


The fluke of a Pacific Humpback.

We are approaching the first tidewater glacier of the tour, Holgate, when Captain Tim catches sight of a whale in a cove nearby. We trail this whale for a while, watching the flume as she comes up to breathe a couple of times. She shows her tail a few times, and we head on to the next glacier.


We pull up quite close to the the Aialik glacier, and Captain Tim explains that this is one of the largest tidewater glaciers, measuring one mile wide. He continues on about how changes in the oxygen levels affect the color of the glacier – the more compacted the snow is, the bluer the glacier is, due to changes in the oxygen molecules. As Tim talks, we begin to hear sounds resembling claps of thunder, as the glacier begins to calve, or break away. At times, we catch splashes as chunks of the glacier fall into the water. Tim wants to stay put as he has a hunch we are going to catch some good glacial calving, and moments later, he is proved right, as we watch for more than a minute as massive chunks of the glacier calve and crash into the water, causing waves to ripple towards our boat. We leave before the waters get rough, in awe of what we’ve just witnessed.

We follow a couple more humpbacks, but they’re elusive and we only catch a glimpse of a tail here or there in the distance. Tim has other things he wants to show us, so we’re not overly persistent in our pursuit. We begin our journey back to the inlet where the sea lions were resting earlier in the afternoon, and Tim comes on the loudspeaker again to let us know that it’s our lucky day because up ahead are a couple of pods of Orcas cruising through the inlet. Up ahead, I catch a glimpse of two to three Orca fins, and then off to the right are about three different pods, each made up of about three whales. They are just cruising by with no interest in us or what we’re doing there. It is beautiful to watch these animals in their own environment, and I manage to count 13 fins cruising away from us into the inlet.

FullSizeRender (44)

A Pacific Humpback splashes on its side.

The trip has been epic, and Tim says it’s time to head back so that those of us who need to make trains and boats can do so, but even with limited time, we make two additional stops on the way back- one to catch the sea lions that are still lounging high on the same rocky outcrop, and two, to follow one last humpback that playfully waves at us and splashes on its side, showing its white pectoral fin.

The crew hands out freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and we make our way back to the harbor. I’m in awe of all we have seen on this ‘glacier tour,’ where we were expecting glaciers and hoping for a whale sighting. We’ve been afforded with so much more.

Captain Tim docks the boat back in Seward Harbor and stands above deck to bid us farewell as we disembark the Coastal Explorer.  A few hundred meters up ahead, Holland America’s cruise ship, the Zaandam, sits docked, dwarfing the surrounding boats.

FullSizeRender (48)

Boarding the Zaandam in Seward.

As we make our way to the cruise ship shuttle, a fisherman with a long, scraggly beard bikes by us. Over his shoulder is his fishing gear, and hanging from his bike handlebars is a freshly caught salmon. I think to myself, this must be the Alaskan equivalent of ‘picking up dinner.’

I could easily spend a few more days in Seward, exploring the surrounding villages and soaking in mother natures beautiful vistas, but we’ve concluded the land portion of our ten day Land & Sea Tour, and it’s time to board the Zaandam and cruise South.

Alaska, Anchorage, Denali National Park, Glacier Brewhouse, McKinley Explorer

Day 3: Denali –> Anchorage: All Aboard The McKinley Explorer

FullSizeRender (31)

Snow falling on the Nenana River outside McKinley Chalet.


                     The McKinley Explorer.

We wake to the sound of heavy rain. The weather has changed drastically overnight and the temperature is hovering around 34. By the time we sit down to breakfast, snow is falling and accumulating on the yellow birch trees outside. They say there are four seasons in Alaska: June, July, August and Winter, and well, it looks like Winter is here.

FullSizeRender (19)

Snowy conditions leaving Denali.

FullSizeRender (20)

               Hurricane Gulch.

We transfer from the McKinley Lodge to the train depot just outside of town. Here, we board the McKinley explorer, and settle in for the 8-hour train ride to Anchorage. By this point in time, everything is dusted in white. It makes for a picturesque departure from Denali. We hug the Nenana River for most of the morning, and by late morning, the snow has turned back to rain. We cross Hurricane Gulch on a trestle bridge 300 feet up, watching the riverbed snake through the mountainsides.  

We head down to the Explorer’s Dining Car and enjoy a lunch of wild salmon and quinoa salad, and we spend the afternoon passing through remote off-the-grid little villages and well-known towns alike. Two more notable places are Wasilla (Sarah Palin’s hometown) and Willow (where they tried to relocate the capital to in 1976).

We arrive in Anchorage and transfer to the Westmark, centrally located to Glacier Brewhouse, which has been recommended to me by a college friend who lived in Anchorage for a number of years. The Brewhouse is also recommended by the bus driver and the hotel, so we know it must be good and aim to get there early to beat the crowds. No such luck! It’s Saturday night and this place is seething.


The Explorer’s dining car.


Deep thoughts from Glacier Brewhouse.

We order a couple of beers at the bar while we wait for a table, a delicious Oatmeal Stout and an IPA. We find a few seats between a couple of pilots and an Alaskan couple. Dinner is Land & Sea Oscar, halibut and 28-day aged filet. Great food, beer and service and the place seems to be packed with locals and travelers alike.

As we leave the restaurant, the sun is setting, and the waterfront is only three blocks away. I hightail it down there with no camera and only 5% of power on my phone. By the time I arrive, the Alaskan Mountain Range is glowing pink, Denali sits off to the right, and unfortunately, my phone is completely dead. I find a park bench and sit down and watch as planes take off and head west to Asia and the sun dips below the mountain range. I sit with a man from Anchorage who flies seaplanes and he shares stories of flying north in the summer to lands where the sun doesn’t set, landing in places where one family might be the entire population of a place. He’s getting ready to head to Hawaii for the Winter.

I head back to the hotel and sit chatting with a lady who has made Anchorage her home for 44 years. She talks about winter – festivals, winter sports, conventions, the weather – says it’s not that bad. By the end of the conversation, I’m even saying “yeah, it sounds kind of fun.” Then I remember that comment about 40 below, and think I’ll stick to three of Alaska’s four seasons: June, July and August.